London, Jun 25 (PTI) UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was on Friday fighting to keep hold of his job as he apologised for breaching COVID-19 social distancing rules after a newspaper published photographs of him kissing a female aide from his department.
The Opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have demanded his removal as the extra-marital affair evidence from last month breached the coronavirus lockdown guidance of close contact only within a strict household bubble amid the rapid spread of the Delta variant in the country.
However, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is standing by his Cabinet minister and has declared the matter closed after his apology.
'The Prime Minister has accepted the Health Secretary's apology and considers the matter closed,' Johnson's spokesperson at 10 Downing Street told reporters.
The embarrassing revelations came in 'The Sun' newspaper, which showed Hancock in a tight embrace and kissing 43-year-old Gina Coladangelo, a former lobbyist and adviser in his Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
The photographs are reportedly from CCTV footage from inside DHSC from May 6 and show the senior Cabinet minister, a 42-year-old married father of three, with Coladangelo inside an office room.
'I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances,' Hancock said in a statement.
'I have let people down and am very sorry. I remain focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic, and would be grateful for privacy for my family on this personal matter,' he said.
Social distancing at work places is not a legal requirement, but it is recommended by the government that people keep 2 metres apart where possible – or 1 metre with 'risk mitigation', such as standing side by side or wearing masks.
In a statement before his apology, Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds accused the minister of abuse of power.
'If Matt Hancock has been secretly having a relationship with an adviser in his office – who he personally appointed to a taxpayer-funded role – it is a blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest,' said Dodds.
'The charge sheet against Matt Hancock includes wasting taxpayers' money, leaving care homes exposed and now being accused of breaking his own COVID rules. His position is hopelessly untenable. Boris Johnson should sack him,' she said.
Reacting to his apology, she added: 'He set the rules. He admits he broke them. He has to go. If he won't resign, the PM should sack him.' Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who chairs the all party parliamentary group on coronavirus, accused Hancock of 'utter hypocrisy' and questioned Boris Johnson's response.
'The question is does the British public accept the apology because the British public needs to have trust. I think he has lost that trust today, and I think it's on that basis that actually I think Boris Johnson should recognise that and replace him,' she told 'Sky News'.
Coladangelo is a marketing and communications director at British retailer Oliver Bonas, which was founded by her husband Oliver Tress.
She is said to be an old friend of Hancock and his wife from their time at Oxford University together. The minister has been married to wife Martha, an osteopath, for 15 years and they have three children together.
Coladangelo was made a paid non-executive director at the DHSC in September last year. In November 2020, ‘The Times’ reported that Hancock had failed to declare their friendship when appointing her as an adviser in March last year.
She held the role for six months before becoming a member of the Department of Health's non-executive board. A government spokesperson said the appointment had been 'made in the usual way' and had 'followed correct procedure'.
The allegations are particularly problematic as in May last year, epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson resigned from the government's scientific advisory group after it emerged he had broken lockdown rules when a woman he was reportedly in a relationship with visited his home.
At the time Hancock had dubbed Prof. Ferguson’s actions 'extraordinary', adding that social distancing rules were 'there for everyone' and were 'deadly serious'. PTI AK IND